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For those of you who are unfamiliar with Mint.com, it’s a free online personal finance site that allows you to track spending across all of your bank accounts and manage budgets and financial goals. Once upon a time it was a nice little Web 2.0 startup, now it’s owned by Intuit. The service is free, but it’s ad supported, albeit in an unintrusive way - “partner” services (credit cards, savings accounts, etc.) are recommended. I’ve been using it for about two weeks now, with a goal of tracking my spending, developing a budget and getting a better handle on my present and future finances. So here are some of my impressions, considering that the service is still growing but has been around for a while.

The Good:

  • Account Sync - Some things I’ve read online suggest that Mint now uses the Yodlee service to sync transactions from your financial institutions. Whatever they use, they seem to be able to sync transactions and account balances from all of my accounts, even ones at a few small investment companies. The sync is fast, and they do push notifications (low balance, large deposits, etc.) very well. They even seem to support many more institutions than Quicken last time I used it (2010 I think).
  • Budgets - Mint has a very nice, clean, simple monthly budget implementation. You tell it how much you want to spend in a given category in a month, and it shows a nice horizontal bar graph of how far through your allotment you are. It even makes some suggestions, and sets baseline budgets by category based on previous spending. About the only problem is when my bi-weely pay checks fall on odd weeks in the month. Most of my bills are due near the end of the month, and if my pay check happens to be around the same time my bills are due, I’ll have quite a bit less cash on hand at the beginning of the next month than the budgets reflect.
  • Categorization - they do it very well. One of their big selling points is their categorization engine, and it seemed to get about 80% of my purchases right, from day one. That’s much better than anything else I’ve seen. The only down side is that they only look at the Vendor name, not the description - so when I use my debit card and the vendor name is “NYCE Transaction” but the store name/address is in the description, Mint is hopelessly lost. They offer rules to put transactions in category, but only exact matching on the vendor name, so there’s no way to tell it to look at a description that includes “123 Main St”. From a programmer’s perspective, they should allow rules based on either vendor name or description, and maybe they should let the user highlight or specify the part that matches (or a RegEx?).
  • Apps - I haven’t tried the iOS ones, but the Android app is pretty nice. It gives a nice quick picture of your spending and account balances, how you’re doing with your monthly budget, and any alerts/messages. Transaction history isn’t easily accessible and is per-account only, so it’s hard to answer “hmmm, how much did it cost last time I was here?” or “where did I get lunch last Tuesday?”, but it’s still handy enough to tell me how much I have left in my Entertainment budget, or whether I should put this big purchase on my credit or debit card.
  • Goals - Mint has a good idea with goals - it includes a number of pre-configured financial goals like paying off credit card debt, saving for retirement, or stashing away some emergency cash. But in order to function correctly, you must have a specific, dedicated account for each goal. I guess this is where Mint makes money - they suggest accounts with specific attributes (high interest, high liquidity, whatever) from their partners. But there doesn’t appear to be a way to set up a Goal without associating it with a dedicated account, and (as per some forum posts I read, I haven’t tried this) you can’t associate a cash asset account with a goal, so there’s no way to track my progress on building the Depression fund I keep under my mattress.

The Bad/Room for Improvement:

  • Customer Service - I don’t know when Mint was bought up by Intuit, but to me, they have the feel of an agile Web 2.0 property that was bought up by a slow-moving bureaucratic company unable to keep up with customer demands or the amount of support requests. They use GetSatisfaction, a new-age forum-based customer “community” provider, for customer service. But their forums are filled with feature request threads that have “we’ll bring it up to Product Development and get back to you” responses over half a year old. There appears to be very little follow-through or feedback on feature requests, and poor announcement/communication surrounding the one feature that was recently brought in to an invitation-only beta. Unfortunately, I get the general feeling (and I’ve found this far too many times lately) that they were originally a cutting-edge, agile, fast-paced, “cool” service, developed by a team that probably stayed up all night coding a cool feature their users were asking for, that’s now been swallowed up by a behemoth that wants a 6-month-long risk assessment before writing a line of code.
  • Cash Tracking - I understand that Mint makes money from recommending the services of lenders, banks, etc. But if you want to monetize every single feature, you’re bound to fail. In this respect, Mint’s total lack of cash accounting is a serious failure for many of their users (and the forums are filled with threads to this effect). The site allows users to manually input cash transactions, but that’s about it. You can deduct the amount from an automatically-synced ATM withdrawal (just your last ATM withdrawal, no choice if you have multiple ATM accounts, or you and your partner/spouse both use the same Mint account), but that just complicates things further. There’s also no logic of tracking cash on hand - you can create a “Asset” (cash) account, but you have to manually update the balance. If you’re like me and use cash for small purchases, or often get meals at local places that only accept cash, this becomes quite a bit of a hassle. Even more so if, like me, you’ve ever lost an ATM card on a holiday weekend, and now keep some actual cash in the house. Honestly, I think this is my biggest complaint about Mint, and the one that’s most likely to keep me looking for alternatives. More importantly, this has been requested and voted for over and over on their support forums for over a year, with no informational response. For a company whose developers aggregate and analyze data from thousands of banks, I’d think that letting users type in a series of dollar amounts and then totaling it up would be pretty easy.
  • Scheduled Transactions - On the plus side, Mint parses the “next payment due” date out of credit card and loan account information, so it gives you nice (email, SMS, and web) alerts a configurable number of days before. However, it doesn’t even have a feature to set calendar reminders for when bills are due, so I’m still stuck opening Mint and Google Calendar if I need to figure out whether I can make that big purchase today or if I should wait until my next pay check. This was also a very commonly requested feature on their forums, and apparently they have an invitation-only beta running. But I responded to the thread a few days late, so I wasn’t given an invitation. As far as I can tell, there was never an announcement of the beta, and I never got a chance to check a “please let me beta test” box.
  • Forecasting - This is my #2 biggest issue with Mint, after the lack of cash tracking. And the other one most likely to drive me either to another service, to write my own software (again), or to go back to a spreadsheet. Mint is great at tracking your transaction history, your account balances and net worth, and your current monthly budget. But it has absolutely no concept of financial forecasting or balance predictions. If you’re on a tight budget, this can be a problem. At the moment, I have a spreadsheet were I keep a list of all of my regularly recurring expenses (in date order over the month), my pay dates, and the combined balance of my checking/savings accounts. I can easily see what (within reason, not counting discretionary expenses) my cash on hand will be at any time in the month. This seems like a no-brainer necessary feature for a site like Mint, and combined with its great budgeting features, could provide a wonderful picture of what to expect in the next month or two, and when I should plan on making that unusually large purchase.
  • Couples/Families - My girlfriend and I both use Mint, and have somewhat combined finances (but not accounts). It doesn’t make sense for us to have two Mint accounts, since it would be a real pain to keep track of. But, on the other hand, having all of our accounts in one Mint isn’t an ideal solution either. I can categorize transactions, but there’s no easy way to track who the purchase was for, short of duplicating (or triplicating - Me, Her, Both) all of the categories. I’m trying something with tags, but it’s a real kludge in Mint’s search interface to get a list of transactions filtered by category and tag. Also, the account name doesn’t show up in the transactions list unless you pull down the Detail box for a transaction, so it’s troublesome to look through a list and sort out whose cards everything was on.

Miscellaneous:

  • Passwords. In order to sync data from my banks, I have to supply mint.com with all of my login credentials. I understand that, until banks enter the 21st century (and be smart about it - even a less likely possibility) this is just the way it is, and I can’t blame Mint for a system imposed by the banks. But still, I’m not too happy about the idea of Mint storing in plain text (I assume, since they need to pass them on to the bank) my username and password for all of my banking sites. I got some comfort knowing that the site is owned by Intuit - a company that, if not totally security-minded, is at least big enough not to fold overnight after a breach. Maybe one day, banks and credit card companies will let me specify separate credentials specific to third-party software and websites, which I could then revoke with my “master” password. Until then, I guess this is just a risk I have to live with.
  • Importing Transactions - Mint only supports importing up to 3 months of transaction data per account. Some institutions provide less than that. Obviously Intuit doesn’t want people switching from their paid software, so the two YEARS of transactions I meticulously categorized in Quicken are now useless to me in Mint. However, I guess I can’t really fault them too much on this one. Firstly, that would be a LOT of data for them to store. It would also be much more of a headache to try and ensure that the export formats of whatever software packages they support are properly parsed.

Conclusions:

Mint does a lot of things well. And it’s a nice clean interface. But there are also some key features missing, which I feel like I really need. So, for the time being, I’m going to keep using mint, but also explore what other options are available, and look into anyone who offers an API for pulling transaction data that might actually be powerful enough for me to use to write my own web-based app (since my attempts at pulling OFX feeds only worked for about half my accounts). If you don’t care as much about tracking cash spending/cash on hand, and are financially stable enough that you don’t need to forecast the next month or two, Mint is wonderful.


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